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Meeting Houses

The past pushes forward

MEETING HOUSES: Historic buildings pose preservation challenges

  • Greenfield Historical Society President Lenny Cornwell discusses the transformation that the Greenfield Meeting House has gone through over the years at the Greenfield Historical Society Museum. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
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  • Bob Fogg of Hancock takes  time twice a week to manually wind the clock at Hancock's Meetinghouse, a job he's been dedicated to for more than 45 years. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
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  • (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
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  • Robert Stephenson, of the Jaffrey Meeting House Committee, reviews the history of the Jaffrey Meeting House. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
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  • The Jaffrey Meeting House is split into a ground floor with a balcony on three sides with a view of the stage. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
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  • Plaques, accompanied by photographs of residents involved in the Civil War decorate the walls of the Rindge Meeting House. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Old town burial grounds, such as this one in Ridge, are commonly found attached to Meeting Houses, where church, and funeral services, were traditionally held. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • The Second Rindge Meeting House has maintained the building's historic horse sheds. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • New Ipswich Old Town Hall (Staff photo by Maxine Joselow)

Bob Fogg climbs the steps of the Hancock Meetinghouse . Up the stairs, to the building’s second floor and church. Up the ladder to the building’s attic space. Up yet another, narrower set of stairs to the clock tower. There, in a tiny room covered in wallpaper to protect the mechanism from the dust, is the equipment Fogg uses every week to wind the clock in the town’s historic Meetinghouse. It’s as easy a task as it once was, said Fogg. When he was in his twenties, he was approached about taking on the job, and accepted. Now, almost 50 years later, he still makes the trek to the height of the Meetinghouse to wind the clock several times a week. And when Fogg finally retires from the job, his son will step up and take the responsibility.

There are not many churches or town buildings anymore that have the old-fashioned wind-up clocks. Most have gone to electric, for want of a Bob Fogg willing to take on the task of winding it. He doesn’t want to see that happen in Hancock, Fogg said in a recent interview at the Meeting House. The historic nature of the building should be preserved whenever possible, he said.

It’s a feeling that’s echoed by historians and committee members throughout the region dedicated to preserving the history of their towns. Many towns in the area still have a preserved meeting house that dates back to the 1800s — even the 1700s, in some cases. And many are currently undergoing restoration or repair projects to preserve the buildings or bring them back to their former glory.

The historic argument

These buildings are expensive to upkeep, but there is inherent value in their history. Some are attached to the town’s earliest cemeteries. Others are the keepers of such treasures as cenotaphs of soldiers dating back to the Civil War, like the one in Rindge’s Second Meeting House, and bells cast by the Paul Revere Foundry. The Mason Congregational Church has a meeting hall originating from the Know-Nothing political party — a political movement in the 1850s that sought to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants. Some meeting houses have managed to keep the horse sheds built to house horse and carriages while churchgoers spent the Sabbath at church.

Bettie Goen, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Mason church said it is the responsibility of this generation to keep these buildings in good repair. “This church is 200 years old,” she said of the Mason Congregational Church. “People have taken care of it. It wouldn’t be standing, solid and strong and able to be used as a place of worship if people hadn’t taken care of it. Now, it’s our turn to be a good steward, so we can continue to worship in it and turn to hand it over to the next generation. It’s a focal point of the town, it stands tall with that steeple. No matter what direction you’re coming from coming into the village, they all look at the community church.”

Dave Drasba, a member of the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee in Hancock, agreed. “In Hancock particularly, the Meetinghouse is an icon for the town. Anyone that lives there can’t help but think of the village aspect, and if you think of the village, the Meetinghouse is the centerpiece. I can’t speak for the rest of the town, but I feel there is an obligation that our generation has to do its part to make sure that building is there in the future.”

Some of the major restoration projects undertaken by the caretakers of these buildings are funded through town warrants, private donations and/or fundraising efforts, but for many of them, federal funds are the answer. The state Land Heritage and Community Investment Program, or LCHIP, provides funds for open space projects and the conservation of historic buildings. And though for the last two years, funds have been diverted from LCHIP to pay for other state projects, for the next two years, it will be fully funded, with $8.45 million available. So now may be the time to jump on some much-needed renovations. Although, as Drasba pointed out, every town is aware of the money available, and competition is high. Several meeting houses in the Monadnock area already have projects lined up.

Keeping up traditions

Meeting houses were first built when towns were being established, and usually served a twofold purpose. They were central meeting places for events such as town meeting. They also housed church services. As separation of church and state became an issue in the 1830s, many of the buildings were given over to one side or the other, usually with the church moving to a new building. But one or two of the area’s meeting houses have kept with the tradition, getting around the laws by putting church meeting space on an upper floor to separate it from town uses.

Greenfield had a church in the upper section of its Meeting House up until 10 years ago, said Town Administrator Aaron Patt in a recent interview. The touches left on the building by the church’s presence can still be felt — the upper story is decorated with stained glass, for one thing.

Other local meeting houses still have a church in their walls, including the one in Hancock. The upper level is still used and owned by the church, while the lower level is owned by the town. It was once the housing for the town offices, Select Board office, the space for local, state and national voting and, of course, Town Meeting, but that changed in the 1990s, when the offices moved across the street to the former schoolhouse. Until recently, the lower level has been leased to a daycare center and also has traditionally been used for dances plays, and fundraising events. In Rindge is another Meeting House that still uses the upper level space as a church, as well as hosting local events and town municipal meetings in the town-owned lower level .

These buildings are better off for not sitting empty, but with age comes problems. Even though the Greenfield Meeting House sees nearly weekly use as a rental space for weddings, local gatherings, music events, exercise classes and Boy Scout meetings, upkeep is an issue. The town recently became aware that the steeple of the Meeting House needs work. Not only does it need structural repair, but it also needs outside cosmetic work and repairs to the railings around the steeple, which have become damaged and were posing a safety risk. And all told, it will cost $60,000 to fix. Rindge was recently awarded a $12,000 LCHIP grant to restore the windows in the Second Meeting House. The project costs a total of $28,500. And a replacement roof, renovations to make the Meeting House handicapped accessible, as well as updating the boiler and other repairs in Hancock is projected to cost upwards of $1 million.

Some meeting houses are now no longer used or even owned by the town — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t seeing some use. For example, the Francestown Old Meeting House is owned by Old Meeting House of Francestown, Inc., which took it over from the Unitarian Church in 1987, and the building is in use constantly as a meeting space for local concerts, lectures and social events. When Old Meeting House Inc., a nonprofit, took it over, the building underwent $270,000 in renovations. It got a new furnace, rotted timbers in the steeple were replaced, the clock and weather vane were gold-leafed, the windows were reglazed and repainted, and both the exterior and interior were painted . Now, not only are some of those projects reaching the point where they need to be redone, but a recent lighting strike to the steeple has left that in need of repairs as well.

Church and town

Some of the local meeting houses were long ago taken over by the church, including those in New Ipswich and Mason. In both New Ipswich and Mason, the congregational churches are in the former meeting houses. And without public support, maintaining these old buildings is no easy task, said the chair of the Trustees at the Mason Church, Bettie Goen.

The Mason Congregational Church is in the midst of a capital improvement campaign to make some cosmetic improvements to the property, including repainting the exterior and removing a neighboring dilapidated home to extend the Meeting House lawn and parking lot. In the past year, the church has raised more than $136,800 to repair and paint the exterior of the church and for the purchase of the neighboring property. The church is still hoping to raise a further $50,000 for capital improvements, including roof repairs.

With other Meeting Houses, the burden is completely on the town that have taken on full ownership following the church’s departure. Jaffrey, which can only use the Meeting House in the summer as it’s not heated, opens the building for lecture series, fairs, weddings and other rentals. The Meeting House receives a standing contribution from the town during March Town Meeting — typically a few thousand dollars — that goes into a trust for maintenance, according to Jaffrey Meeting House Committee Chair Robert Stephenson. The Jaffrey Meeting House Committee tries to use that money, along with donations and rental fees, to complete one small maintenance or restoration project per year, even something as small as painting one side of the Meeting House. That helps to keep everything running fairly smoothly and means the Meeting House hasn’t needed to go to the town for a large expense in almost 10 years, said Stephenson.

The Temple Town Hall recently went through a major rehabilitation. Since 2003, with grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, LCHIP, the N.H. Conservation License Plate Program and town-raised funds, $720,000 has been raised to construct a Town Hall Annex, with a new kitchen, meeting rooms and new restrooms. The historic main hall was restored, as was the original gallery above the main hall.

Ron Pulos, chair of the Temple Town Hall Advisory Committee, wrote in a recent email to the Ledger-Transcript, “Understanding the crucial role that New England town halls and meeting houses play in the preservation and ongoing revitalization of sustainable small-town communities today, the people of Temple are proud to have preserved their own Town Hall.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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